Students from Sangster Elementary School in Springfield, Virginia, examine a piece of their balsa structure with MITRE's Robert Kobee

In the Community: MITRE STEM Council Teams Up with Odyssey of the Mind

When Northern Virginia’s Odyssey of the Mind needed a tournament space, MITRE opened its doors—and its parking garage. Employees volunteered as judges and captains. The hands-on STEM competition was a success by all measures. 

MITRE employees take our mission of solving problems for a safer world to heart—and to their communities. Our "In the Community" series highlights the many ways our people make a difference in neighborhoods across the country and around the globe. Earlier this spring, MITRE’s Bob Kobee and Jamar Owens teamed up to bring the best of MITRE to save a local STEM competition. This is their story.

Robert Kobee: I’ve been volunteering with Northern Virginia’s Odyssey of the Mind (OM™) since 1998 as a judge and “problem captain.” OM is an international creative problem-solving program for students in kindergarten through college. It encourages students to work together to solve two problems: a predefined, long-term problem—and present their solutions at regional, state, and world competitions—and spontaneous problems that they receive and solve at the competitions.

I reached out to MITRE’s STEM Council about co-sponsoring the 2021 in-person OM tournament at our McLean [Virginia] campus in March. I received corporate approval to hold the event at MITRE following COVID-19 protocols.

STEM in Action

Kobee: The tournament had five problem sets. I was the Virginia state captain for problem 4 this year. It was called “It’s a Trap!!!” The teams designed, built, and tested a structure made only of balsa wood and glue, then placed as much weight as possible on it before it broke. Before weight-placement began, students had to test the structure to see if it could trap a moving object.

Teams also gave a funny presentation about an oblivious character who unwittingly avoids their trap as a narrator explained each trap. [See the problem 4 video.] Their solutions were theirs and theirs alone. They were not allowed to receive help from adults or others when coming up with their solutions.

OM volunteer judges, including MITRE STEM Council members, supervised the weigh-in and weight-holding station for students in the MITRE parking garage.

Four Northern Virginia school teams competed: Nottingham and Sangster Elementary Schools, Poquoson Middle School, and Lake Braddock Secondary School. We hosted 12 students, 12 parents, and 8 judges, plus a MITRE photographer.

Among the teams participating, Sangster Elementary School took first place in Division 1 and their structure held 137 pounds. The team whose structure held the most weight—857 pounds—was from Poquoson Middle School. Eli Niewood, MITRE vice president of intelligence and cross-cutting capabilities, gave a keynote at the Virginia Odyssey of the Mind Virtual Awards Ceremony.

What gets me jazzed about judging tournaments is the feedback process. If the kids do something that works, I’m able to affirm what they’ve done. If something doesn’t succeed as much as they thought it would, we talk about how they can make it better and how to make changes.

Adaptability Saves the Day

Jamar Owens: I’ve been doing youth mentorship for a while. I got recruited to MITRE’s STEM Council in 2018 and became co-chair in 2019. The opportunity to take my work life and marry that with my commitment to mentorship is exciting.

When Robert came to the STEM Council and asked if we’d be willing to host this year’s OM tournament, we wanted to help out. We needed a physical location since schools and all public facilities were closed because of the pandemic. If we could produce the event outside, we could provide these kids with an opportunity to showcase their hard work. They’ve had their lives disrupted by COVID-19 and have lost so many opportunities.

We had to think creatively to manage social distancing, stagger teams, and deal with the elements. We decided to hold the tournament in our parking garage on the McLean campus. Our facilities management team was excellent in supporting the planning.

Fostering Future Problem-Solvers

Owens: The same way MITRE solves problems for a safer world, I was compelled to ponder: How can we have a greater grassroots impact in our society? Success without successors is failure. If we don’t contribute to the STEM ecosystem by training up the next generation—so they can continue to build on what we’ve established—the work we’ve done will ultimately crumble.

As STEM practitioners, it’s our obligation to grow future STEM professionals and leaders through volunteerism and mentorship.

Kobee: Each year I ask the kids if they would participate in the competition again. Most say yes because they find it challenging and it pushes their boundaries. I enjoy seeing the growth year after year in terms of creativity and the innovation in their problem-solving.

They’re not learning to focus on the problem, we’re teaching them how to find solutions. It’s a perfect scenario for us to foster.

by Robert Kobee and Jamar Owens, as told to Aishia Caryn Freeman

Inclusion and diversity have long been key elements of our culture. MITRE is committed to leading the way to a strong future through community involvement and volunteerism, locally and nationally, and we offer 40 hours of paid time to employees to volunteer during the workday for causes they care about. Learn more about working with us.